Architect from Scotland Charles Cameron, employed by Catherine the Great for works in Tsarskoye selo, created the Agate Rooms in 1780s. The Empress was dreaming about Ancient Greek and Roman-style pavilion in her favorite countryside residence. She considered the number of projects, and finally decided to employ Cameron, though he was not very famous at the moment. Cameron, being the follower of Andrea Palladio’s ideas in architecture, went to Italy and studied the architecture of the ancient thermaes there. Book on ancient Roman bathhouses by Cameron has interested the Empress. She gave Cameron the task to build such a “Greek-Roman rhapsody” in her garden. The pavilion consists of two floors. The lower floor had several baths. The upper floor had seven interiors that are rightfully considered to be the jewels of the entire Tsarskoye Selo ensemble. Interiors were faced with agate and this kind of technique and artistic implementation is unique in Europe.
Agate Rooms: construction history
The first lapidary factory in Russia was established under Peter the Great. It was located nearby the official summer residence in Peterhof. Catherine the Great invested into the further development of lapidary works in Russia and sent the expedition to Urals. The scientists discovered the new deposits of jasper, cornelian, agate and some other minerals there. Empress herself was very interested in mineralogy. In 1779, after parting with the great love of her life Prince Gregory Potemkin, she found another favorite, count Alexander Lanskoy. The young man turned out to be not only handsome but knowledgeable and got Catherine deeply interested in mineralogy. All European aristocracy at the time was collecting minerals; arranging exquisite display cases full of rocks and gems in their castles and palaces. Catherine and her young lover also were taken by that hobby. The idea of having the entire halls bedecked with minerals was appealing. Catherine the Great could afford it. Charles Cameron was told to decorate the new pavilion in Tsarskoye Selo garden with newly discovered gems from Urals.
Construction work started in 1779 and completed in 1788. The building that includes these agate-studded interiors is named the Cold Bath, since the original idea of Cameron was the reproduction of Roman Thermae of Emperor Constantine.
Interior features and décor of the Agate Rooms
Cameron developed two-storey structure which is notable for the sharp contrast in design of the ground and first floor. The ground floor is finished with limestone – massive blocks of rock from Pudost village near Gatchina. Stone is porous and therefore produces the impression of the “ancient”, dark and time-withered thing. The first floor is light in looks, well-lit and elegant. The yellow walls have terra-cota niches with classical statues of Antique deities.
The ground floor had various types of baths for the empress: Russian bath, Roman bath, swimming pool, cool bath, massage room and recreation room. This was about the time when after the ages of darkness doctors have finally rediscovered the essence of water for human health. Catherine, following these latest scientific discoveries, loved the idea of the baths. Going to the upper floor, using the unique elegant staircase, she found herself in the fairytale precious halls decorated with Siberian minerals.
These were also the halls for relaxation and the completely private territory of the empress. The Large hall, library, and two small cabinets are there. Walls of these two cabinets have jasper veneer. They were covered with limestone slabs and faced with slabs of jasper. This kind of finishing has the name “Russian mosaic”. Jasper finishing was exceptionally hard work: the stone-cutters had to polish them to be smooth and shiny as the glass by the hands. The space covered with jasper was about 200 square meters. Other precious minerals like cornelian, genuine and artificial marble, bronze ornaments were in use. Agate rooms are unique in the use of jasper for the interior works. This is the only case in Europe.
Interesting facts about Agate Rooms
The dark red colour of the jasper found in Urazovo, which was used to finish two halls of the pavilion is the origin of the name “Agate Rooms”. Russian craftsmen named this mineral “meat agate” of “flesh agate”, so the entire set of chambers eventually got this name.
The luxurious parquetry of the Agate Rooms initially was intended for the palace of Alexander Lanskoy. Catherine’s favorite died at the age of 26, his residence was never finished. Architect Veldten completed the Agate Rooms interiors with details taken from that “ghost palace”. Catherine the Great was completely bereaved by grief, shaken by the early death of the young man. She ordered to built a monument in the garden under her windows commemorating Lanskoy.
The Agate Rooms: “The Way to Revival”. This small exhibition on the lower floor unveils the history and recent restoration of the masterpiece. It also showcases surviving objects from a collection of exquisite furnishings dating back to the era of Catherine the Great. Actually not that many of them survived. The Agate Rooms shared the same sad fate as many of the other buildings at Tsarskoye Selo. During the Nazi occupation it was used as a stable and a concert hall, everything of a value was looted. Despite the war and occupation, a lot of original interior finish has survived. During the Soviet times it was in the state of conservation, the active restoration works were completed in 2013. One more reason to call the Agate rooms unique is the fact that here we can see original parquet floors and interior furnishing.